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What is a Sea Shanty? A Look at the First Type of World Music

We’re talking strength in numbers.

Sea Shanties helped gather engergy

At the end of last year, a musician named Nathan Evans posted a video on TikTok of himself singing a sea shanty called “The Wellerman.” The TikTok now has over 2 million likes and has inspired a large amount of remixes, remakes, and other types of original yet similar videos. Indeed, everyone is pulling together over sea shanties.

What is a sea shanty?

A sea shanty is a song that is used by maritime workers to gather strength and energy to perform tasks synchronously. Think of them like the workman’s metronome. These tasks could include actions like rowing or raising a sail.

Even though a shanty is typically associated with work songs, there are ballads and “4 bidders” that have musical instruments that accompany them. They are a type of music that serve many different purposes.

Lyrical structure

Shanties are typically very flexible in nature, meaning that often times choruses are lengthened or repeated so that others joining in can think of some adhoc lyrics as they go on. This allows them to either be lengthened or shortened depending on what work needs to be done. They work in a call-and-response type nature, where the front man is usually improvising verses while the rest of the crew helps out with the chorus.

Shanty music falls in the genre of “folk” and is considered by many to be the first “world music” as it was delivered to all ends of the globe by sailors and other sea venturers. They can be heard from South Australia and Polynesia, to Chicago, to all the way up to the U.K. In the last decade it seems that sea shanty’s have become even more mainstream.

Finding new audiences

They continue to find new audiences from works like the aforementioned Nathan Evans TikTok. For example, in 2011 the band “Fisherman Friends” was awarded The Good Tradition Award by BBC Radio for keeping folk music alive. And there is now even a movie about the band that you can stream on Netflix (which is both a tear-jerker and smile generator). The movie hits home and you get a vast array of different sea shanty songs filled with native lyrics and catchy vibes.

Where does the word “Shanty” come from?

The origin of the word is technically unknown, but as you can see the word bears a striking resemblance to the word “chant” and it’s interesting enough that the French word for “to sing” is actually chanter.

Regions and The Surprising Influence of the Great Lakes

Shanties originated in the U.K. region and it’s where they’ve always been most heavily prevalent, but they could be found being sung all around the world. In fact, they actually have a strong presence in the Great Lakes region as Chicago was once the 4th largest port in the world, and in the 1880’s there were about 1,800 sailing ships at any point in time on the Great Lakes.

Some forgotten shanties were sung by the black population of the Great Lakes region. In fact a song titled “The Ward Line” was inspired by a working on a fleet of ships owned y Eber Ward – an abolitionist that was involved in the underground railroad.

“Lake Superior is Colder than Ice,

Tell me who’s on the way boys, who’s on the way…

Fall in just once and freeze all of your lice….”

– The Ward Line

Interestingly enough, Polynesian shanties (also known as chants), happened independently and have a little bit different of a flavor to them which can be found in the chant titled I ku mau mau.

Sea Shanty Classes

Because sea shanties are associated with a a rich history that don’t just have to do with music, but rather a whole way of life, they make for extremely interesting course material. Learning about sea shanties also means learning about the life of a sailor, and in turn with geography, the history of port cities, as well many other interesting tidbits. Consider taking an hour and half or more out of your day to take a sea shanty class.

Sea Shanty Playlists

There are a ton of great sea shanty playlists on Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. If you do a few searches on any of these platforms you will easily YouTube able to find something and even start to create a list of your own favorites!